Yesterday, 32-year-old Brooklyn resident Nicholas Mevoli died after trying to set an American freediving record at 72 meters (about 236 feet) at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas during the Vertical Blue freediving championship event. According to The New York Times, he surfaced after 3 minutes and 38 seconds. After he flashed the “O.K.” sign to authorities, he quickly lost consciousness. “[Safety divers] turned Mevoli onto his side, and blood began pouring from his mouth and pooling on the platform before dissipating into the sea,” reported the Times. Mevoli seems to have suffered from a pulmonary edema, an accumulation of fluid in the airspaces of the lungs, a common condition in drowining victims. About 800 cubic centimeters of fluid was pulled from his lungs. Attempts to revive Mevoli failed—the prop man in New York film and TV production, who had spent $34,000 this year traveling and competing in freediving, had died at 1:44 PM.
As one of the sports world’s most dangerous endeavors, freediving has a small but passionate following. Competitors dive down into the water vertically, swimming as deep as he or she can without any oxygen aid (or sometimes with fins), and then resurfacing. Elite free-divers can hold their breaths for minutes a time. And unlike other life-threatening activities that are fueled by adrenaline, such as BASE jumping or free-climbing, freediving seems more rooted in a sense of monk-like calm and superhuman patience—apparently the worst thing a free-diver can do, while submerged at cold, dark depths, is panic. When you lose your cool, you also lose what little oxygen you have left in your system.
“It’s a mental sport as much as it is a physical one,” William Trubridge, who has won more than a dozen world championships, told CNN iReport. “One of the beautiful aspects of it is that it forces you to be in the moment. It’s almost impossible to be in the water and at the same time contemplating problems. As soon as you get in the water, that all dissolves and you’re just there.
But it’s deadly. Though hard statistics are hard to come by, an interest group counted 34 deaths and six injuries in 2006. According to an ABC report, in 2003, there were an estimated 5,000 freedivers around the world—and an estimated 100 die each year. That number is bound to have grown.
The Vertical Blue competition, which has been called the “Wimbledon” of the sport, has been called off for the time being, out of respect for Mevoli. According to Vertical Blue’s official site, “Competition freediving has an enviable safety record but the sport can never be risk-free, something understood by all freedivers.” Mevoli knew this as well as anyone. “We wish Nick luck in his new world,” said Ren Chapman, Mevoli’s friend and safety team leader. “He died doing what he loved to do.”